On Hertzfeldt's Rejected
It took years for me to figure out that Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected is an experimental film. Like almost every fan my age, I came across an absolutely horrible rip of it on YouTube sometime in middle school. My twin sister and I became obsessed with the video, screaming, “My anus is bleeding!” or “My spoon is too big!” Our parents probably loved it. My point is: this film had this magical ability to drill directly into the pleasure centers of our brains and take root for months, if not years.
If you haven’t seen Rejected, here’s the restored version Hertzfeldt uploaded last year:
For those who didn’t watch (and you really do owe it to yourself), it’s an animated short about a fictionalized version of Hertzfeldt himself (I’ll refer to him as “Don” throughout for clarity’s sake), who’s hired to create commercials for the fictional Family Learning Channel. He winds up turning in a series of increasingly nonsensical, Dada-esque advertisements, all of which are rejected by the FLC. As Don’s mental state worsens, the world of his cartoons begins to break down, and ultimately disintegrates.
I had no idea at the time that Rejected was a critique of the intersection between art and capitalism, or, more specifically, the creation of art for commercial purposes. Throughout the film, Don’s incapable of creating a commercial that even mildly relates to the product being advertised. Instead, he resorts to, occasionally horrifying, non-sequiturs, pasting an image of the product at the end (One commercial depicts a baby taking his first steps, only to fall down an improbably long staircase as an audience cheers on. This is then revealed to be an advertisement for kelp dip.) Rejected repeatedly and exaggeratedly lays out the detrimental effects of forcing artists to utilize their creativity in service of selling shit, namely: you lose the heart.
In most of the commercials presented in the film, there’s no attempt, even a feigned one, at an emotional connection with the audience. There are plenty of ideas, sure, but nothing that truly resonates as anything but horror or a good laugh (and even the laughs are derived from understanding the meta absurdity of the clips, rather than specific jokes within the script).
When viewed through that lens, the harsh violence seen in some of the commercials makes a lot more sense. As Don’s mind rebels more and more against his assignment, we see increasing amounts of blood and violence, until one character is practically drowning in a pool of his own (yes, anal) hemorrhaging. Still, even this violence fails to disqualify him from commercial work. Don finally resorts to drawing with his non-dominant hand, which suggests that the issue stems from both an inability and a lack of desire to create serviceable advertisements.
But we only know all of this thanks to the frame story of the film. And, again, as obsessed as I was with the film, I don’t really remember ever thinking about that. I’m far from the only one who missed the central message, though. Hertzfeldt noted as such in a series of tweets on the eighteenth anniversary of Rejected’s release:
While it’s one thing for a bunch of folks who saw it while they were in middle school to miss the point, it feels a lot more depressing to see how some advertisers missed it as well. Rejected’s success (it was Oscar-nominated!) led to job offers for… commercial work. Hertzfeldt turned all of them down, but not everyone let that stop them! Look no further than Pop-Tarts, which pretty blatantly tried to ape Hertzfeldt’s art style and dark humor:
It’s gross! But what can you do? I guess it’s like they always say: Good artists copy. All corporations steal.